What Marriage Isn’t

The marriage had its troubles in it, which is easy to say. It had something else in it too, which is not so easy.

The fresh-faced and totally-in-love newly weds sat at our dinner table, eager for our advice. They wanted to start a website for newlyweds, they said, and share their story to encourage people. “Marriage is awesome”, they beamed, “and we think people should know”. I chewed my dinner slowly and considered what to say, being five years further down the road than they.

Yes, marriage is awesome.

Except when it isn’t.

But how could they possibly know that yet? And who wants to be the Debbie Downer of Domestic Bliss? Marriage is absolutely awesome and also absolutely hard: both these things are true, and not in the sense that they cancel each other out in the midway to make marriage lukewarm or “mostly harmless”. Both these things are true in deep, shocking measure. Like the little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead, when marriage is good it’s very, very good; but when it’s bad it’s horrid. And sometimes both these things are true in the same week. So to those newly weds I wanted to offer some words of perspective: Marriage between sinners can never be wholly good, but it does a holy good in us.

The longer I am married—and the longer I write—the harder I find it to write about marriage. Not because I’m disillusioned or unwilling to share, but because the mystery of marriage seems to me to deepen with time. Perhaps this is why this reflection from Hannah Coulter—Wendell Berry’s beautiful novel with an elderly woman’s reflections on her life—is so profound:

“The marriage had its troubles in it, which is easy to say. It had something else in it too, which is not so easy. As I go about quietly by myself in my days now or lie awake in the night, I hunt for the way to speak of it, for it is the best thing I have known in this world, and it lays its peace on everything else I know.

The longer I am married, the more I understand why St Paul, in his famous description of love, started out by trying to say what it was, but then was pushed into saying what it wasn’t. Love is patient, love is kind. That’s what love is. But love has a mysterious element too: defined as much by what it isn’t as what it is: it isn’t jealous, nor self-seeking, nor rude. It does not boast, nor does it tally others’ wrongs.

Love is known by its presence and its absences. By the giving of grace and the withholding of judgment. By what it is and what it isn’t. And so is marriage.

Marriage is a friendship, but it isn’t just that. Marriage is family, but it isn’t the only way we experience family. Marriage is hard, but often for very soul-shapingly good reasons. Marriage is good, but that good isn’t always easily won. Marriage is a firm resolve to keep the covenants we have made, and yet it isn’t just that; for marriage can also hold an easy camaraderie and a comforting togetherness and a desire to be together and come together which are so very hard to put into words.

Marriage isn’t salvation, but at its best it models grace and mercy.

Marriage isn’t life’s ultimate goal, but done well it can point us in that direction.

Marriage isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of relationships, but it is the most intense and refining and rewarding one I’m called to right now.

Personally, I am wary of marriage articles that begin with “5 ways to…” and “31 days to…” The longer I am married, the more I feel like a list of bullet points will not hit the target I’m aiming for. We need to read—and write—words and lyrics which tell the truth about marriage: how we will trip over our own egos and griefs, how again and again we will need deep grace, how sometimes daily life gets boring and yet we need to seek togetherness… and how, somehow, finding that togetherness of partnering through life in God’s service together, despite all our faults and failings, remains the most deeply comforting and joyful things I’ve known in this world.

It lays its peace on everything I know.

 

Image Credit: Sweethearts / Patrick (Flickr Creative Commons), edited using Canva.

8 thoughts on “What Marriage Isn’t

  1. This is beautiful. It lays it’s peace on everything I know. And I have found that, in the hard times, it lays it’s misery on everything I know. In 29 years We’ve had more misery than I ever expected, but we keep on, and the love and connection keep growing deeper and sweeter.

    • Oh yes!! When times are stressful, marriage most certainly can lay its misery on everything I know, too. Yes, and more misery that I expected too… and yet… there is also a depth and sweetness I hadn’t anticipated. Thank you for sharing your encouragement!

  2. I sometimes write an article entitled “5 Ways to Better” whatever. Not one of them is meant to be taken seriously. I hope people don’t come looking for real tips on marriage, because I have nothing to offer except what has worked for me.

    • What do any of us have to offer except what has worked for us? (for what it’s worth, I’d consider your tips on marriage to be “real”, Tim 🙂 )

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